Watch videos on TikTok and you're likely to see plenty of positive portrayals of vaping, a new study shows.
And that's a problem, according to researchers, who call for tighter regulation of the platform popular with kids and teens.
"Viewing other young people, friends, acquaintances or influencers vaping in fun and entertaining contexts, is likely to normalize e-cigarette use and make it a behavior to emulate," said a team led by Tianze Sun, from The National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Prior research has found that the prevalence of e-cigarette use within the previous month among U.S. high school students has risen threefold, from around 9% in 2014 to over 27% in 2019. Vaping typically contains addictive nicotine.
TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform worldwide, with 800 million monthly users who spend an average of 52 minutes on it and watch more than 200 videos a day. One-third of its U.S. users are 14 or younger.
In the new study, Sun's group first identified the most popular vaping hashtags based on the number of TikTok views on one day in November 2020.
They also collected publicly available links for the 1,000 most popular vaping-related videos from TikTok's start date in January 2019 to November 2020. After removing duplicates and videos unrelated to vaping, the final sample contained 808 videos.
Collectively, these videos were viewed over 1.5 billion times. They had an average view count of 1 million and an average "likes" count of 143,000.
About 63% of videos portrayed e-cigarette use positively. These were collectively viewed over 1.1 billion times. About 24% had neutral depictions of e-cigarette use. Those were viewed a total of 290 million times. About 13% had negative depictions and were viewed a total of 193 million times, the findings showed.
The numbers of views, likes, user categories and themes were then independently reviewed and categorized in seven principal themes. More than half were "comedy and joke" messages, and about one-third were "lifestyle and acceptability." The other themes were marketing, vaping tricks, nicotine and addiction, creativity or how-to tutorials, and warnings.
The findings were published online July 26 in the journal Tobacco Control.
TikTok's community guidelines restrict uploading videos featuring "the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances." Advertising of tobacco and alcohol products is also banned on the platform.
However, there was plenty of content displaying vaping and "previous studies have indicated that exposure to vaping-related content among youth is associated with e-cigarette use," Sun's team said in a journal news release. They believe that, "considering vaping-related videos are widely accessible on TikTok, there is an urgent need to consider age restrictions to reduce youth uptake."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on lung injuries associated with vaping.
SOURCE: BMJ, news release, July 26, 2021